Runner Runner: A Winning Hand

We seem to have a great affection for the “crime doesn’t pay” movie in any given generation. Between the mafia, bank robbers, and a whole range of other forms of organized crime, there are a wealth of well-regarded movies that tell the story of a protagonist entering the criminal underworld, being dazzled by its wealth, power, and glamor, but finally being forced to confront the danger and immorality that is part and parcel of that world. Runner Runner is such a movie, albeit focused primarily on gambling, and I would say much like the other “crime doesn’t pay” movies I’ve seen, it is quite entertaining both to watch the brief golden period and the dangerous turn for the worse it takes.

Runner Runner is the story of Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a poor Princeton student who washed out of a good job on Wall Street because of an unlucky turn of events. No longer able to afford tuition for his Master’s Degree, Richie resorts to directing traffic on campus to an online gambling site until he is forced to stop. With no other way to gain the money he needs for tuition in a timely manner, Richie bets all of his remaining money trying to win his tuition in online poker using his immense math skills to try and get some easy money. Unfortunately for Richie, a bad player he begins targeting suddenly demonstrates impossibly good instincts and takes him for all he has; checking data later in the computer lab, Richie is able to confirm that his opponent’s win rate is concrete proof he was using software to cheat other players.

Rather than vent his grievance online, Richie decides to take another gamble and go to meet the owner of the site, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) directly. Ivan Block is a huge name in the online gambling world, currently staying in Costa Rica to avoid legal action for his shadier dealings. With a charged trip, and a mix of bluffing and wheedling, Richie is able to come face-to-face with Block and expose the fraud, hoping Block will repay him what he lost in exchange for him keeping quiet about the incident and protecting the site’s reputation. Block surpasses Richie’s expectations and offers him a job instead. Tempted by the massive figures involved, Richie eagerly accepts and becomes an affiliate in Block’s organization. While initially Richie loves the money and parties that come with his new job and starts to get closer with Block’s lady friend Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), cracks begin to show when FBI Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) starts putting pressure on Richie to turn informer for him while Block starts giving Richie increasingly immoral and dangerous tasks as part of his job. While Richie realizes very quickly neither Shavers nor Block has his well-being at heart and tries to flee before things get worse, he finds himself trapped in Costa Rica and forced to use his wits to try and turn the tables and escape with his life.

 Runner Runner proves an entertaining watch by virtue of its good writing and acting; Justin Timberlake makes for a surprisingly affable lead character, whose frustration with his financial woes and the temptation to make real money using his talents is understandable, as is his realization he’s made a terrible mistake when the cost of all that money comes back to bite him. Ben Affleck, meanwhile, is a good bad guy, playing Block as charismatic and likable at first to show how he gets people to trust him so they’re unprepared when he turns on them and exploits their weaknesses if they cross him. He maintains the pleasant facade over a cold, calculating mind for the entirety of the movie, never being reduced to stomping and screaming like some villains even when he’s intimidating Richie into doing whatever he says. The other characters are more minor, but I liked Anthony Mackie playing Agent Shavers ambiguously; the audience is left guessing for a while if he’s a corrupt agent perfectly willing to send Richie to his death to get a shot at Block or if he’s a man of his word doing what he has to to bring down a dangerous and very intelligent criminal. The scenes where Richie first has to use his wits to get into Block’s world and later in the movie when he has to go even further to get out of it are also a lot of fun to watch, and the story concludes satisfyingly without any major plot holes.

Overall, I’d say that if you enjoy crime movies that are more about manipulation and bluffing than guns and explosions, or are a fan of Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck, Runner Runner is worth a watch.

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